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How government is failing the people of Papua

How government is failing the people of Papua

This is part 2 of former Fairfax Media Indonesia correspondent Michael Bachelard's series on Papua. The introduction to the series is here, and here' part 1.

Gaad Piranid Tabuni grew up in a village in the Papuan highlands of Indonesia too remote for any government – colonial Dutch or Indonesian – to maintain a presence. But missionaries lived there, and Tabuni, now one of the most senior public servants in the region, say they made him the man he is.

West Papuan villagers in the highlands of Lolat. (November 2014/Michael Bachelard.)

'I went to missionary schools, grew up in their environment...Their struggle was very tough. They are tough people, so we learned from them. They taught us how to read from scratch...gave us clothes and taught us to wear them'.

A condition imposed by the Indonesian foreign ministry on my trip to the Papuan highlands in November 2014 was that I speak to a government official. Tabuni, an ethnic Papuan like most of the political leaders and public servants here, was the one who gave me the time. Unlike others, he was at work when I called. But if Jakarta expected him to feed me the central government line – that development in Papua is proceeding well – they would have been sorely disappointed.

'If the missionaries say it's A, then it's A; and if it's B, it's B. The Indonesian mentality is different,' Tabuni says. He believes, as do most of his countrypeople, that Jakarta is trying to 'Islamise' and 'Indonesianise' Papua. Papuans, he complained, were not 'strong in our culture' enough to resist. [fold]

Indonesia came to Papua in 1963, and had its takeover given a gloss of legitimacy in 1969 in a misnamed 'Act of Free Choice' under the auspices of the UN. In the 1980s, as well as a heavy handed military presence, the state began a series of ill-conceived agricultural construction projects. People were encouraged to grow carrot and sawee (Chinese cabbage) – one hectare each – 'but they didn't teach us how to do in a modern way, so we did it in our own way'.

'It was too much. We couldn't cope, because the education was not enough; the human resources,' Tabuni says.

Come harvest, there was no market for the produce in Wamena, and no way to transport fresh vegetables to the capital, Jayapura. There is still no road, and air freight is punishingly expensive. There have been further attempts to build economic infrastructure over the years, but it's marred by poor quality and the theft of funds.

'The quality of the Indonesian projects is bad. They only last one year,' Tabuni says.

It's not uncommon around Wamena to see road-working equipment rusting in the long grass beside a half-finished highway repair job. 'The planning is always good but in the implementation, it's 70% different from the plans because the money goes missing,' Tabuni says.

Papua's poverty is not for want of money. I repeatedly heard the complaint from Papuans that Jakarta steals the funds generated by the giant Freeport gold and copper mine near Timika. It's Indonesia's largest single taxpayer, returning about $US1.5 billion in revenue last year. 

But Vice-President Jusuf Kalla said in January that significantly more money is pumped back into Papua than the mine provides. Much of this is doled out in cash through two welfare packages 'Respek' and PNPM, which spring from Papua's 'special autonomy' from Indonesia, a status granted in 2001.

The rest goes to fund local government administrative areas called 'kabupaten'. To maximise these funds, members of the Papuan elite are continually pressing Jakarta to subdivide kabupaten into smaller and smaller administrative districts in a virtually viral process called 'pemekaran'.  They argue it will get government closer to the people, but the effect is to dilute even further the meagre political talent and administrative oversight, and to open regions to the Indonesian disease of corruption, compounded by a strong Melanesian obligation to share wealth within clan and tribal groups. 

'What I'm afraid of is that in five to ten years time, all the Bupatis (local area governors) in Papua will go to jail,' Tabuni observes.

The competition for government jobs is intense. But once a job is secured, many public servants – from teachers and health workers to government officials – take their salaries and do not turn up to work.

Tabuni's ultimate message may well please Jakarta: Papua is not ready for independence. 'Independence means we do things for ourselves and not waiting for people to come and give us money. We build things with our own hands'. In Tabuni's view, the Indonesian Government filched something along the way to incorporation into the unitary republic: 'We lost this high integrity, sense of responsibility that the missionaries taught us. It's almost gone. We don't have a high spirit of hard work.'

Instead, his people have become obsessed by politics, including the politics of independence. 'Now the people who join political parties, go into politics, they have high social status. But for me they are fake leaders...How can we have an independent state with these two problems? We would die. This is my view from the cultural aspect,' Tabuni says.

'The greatest problem is the mental problem...People think they can live by politics alone'.

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